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A Straussian on the Suburban Evil

Doubtless these findings must be published in all great journals, for they report the lair of the dragon, of the Dionysian influence which is so corruptive of our souls. It lies not in the mellifluous melodies of the harlot Madonna, nor verily in the narcotic haze through which our young strain to see only the scion screens that alternatively breed and parade epileptic scenes of sex and violence; rather, I have discovered, with unsparing exegeses of diverse texts representing without exception the nodes of social existence, as well as with the exercise of a keen eye trained to notice especially the subtlest of American phenomena, the root of the evil that draws us further and further from the great truths, continually quantumly distancing us, as an entire culture, most noticeably spiritually, from Athens. Too, like the evils it visits upon our souls, it draws us out, toward the edges of the polis, to our separate lives bereft of any meaning at all: I speak, you may have guessed, of that most fundamental of vice-spawning larvae—the suburban auto dealership.

The empirical methods too exact, the scholarship too voluminous to permit a full reconstruction, I here only sketch the barest outline of my twenty-four year meditation. Last month it all became clear to me: upon my return from Paris—ahh, gentle, tasteful Paris—I called for a taxi at the airport. With an alacrity characteristic only of that service industry, a white and rather oblongly structured vehicle appeared and arrested all traffic in its perpendicular assault on white and yellow lines, suddenly fishtailing to the curb upon which I stood. I pulled the latch on the back door and seated myself in the startingly plush interior: leather bucket seats with their own arm rests, carpeted floor, individual vanity mirrors, behind each padded head rest adjustable stereo speakers for each passenger.

“Oh, this is quite nice!” I remarked. “Who would have thought—a flashy Packard as a taxi!”

“Heard WHO had a flashback?” the balding head queried. “Look, mister, I don’ ‘low no druggy, kinky, or crazy stuff going on in that backseat there. It’s agin’ the law, and this rig’s new, ‘sides. Now just sit back and where can I take you to?”

I chuckled: how wonderfully human! “To the University, please. Tell me, what make is this car? Is it standard for your company?” I watched as he greedily eased the gear shaft up a notch, then joyfully depressed the accelerator to the floorboard.

His reply reached my ear as my head rebounded from the rest: “‘S one o’ them Saabs. New. Yep, Man’s ‘vamped the whole g’rage, ‘gotta keep up wi’ the competition, the times, image’s changin’, ‘90’s and so on,’ he says. Hell, I don’ mind. This baby’s NICE!” His point was suddenly amplified by a cacophonous burst from the speaker next to my head, and then a brutish cackling from the front and “Sorry, buddy! Hey, hey . . . you know, s’times I jus’ lose control in this thing.”

Naturally my next questions were: “Tell me, do you believe in objective value? Or is everything relative to you? Don’t you agree that the souls of our youth are emaciated, caught in a maelstrom of mediocrity, hapless simulacra of what our young used to be like? Haven’t you yourself been hypnotized by the undulating, pelvic rhythms of this music? Have you solved the sexual problem? Ever heard of Nietzsche?”

His head was nodding vigorously in the front, though he said nothing. I leaned forward to develop my inquiry, but saw that he could not hear: this Saab—like all others, I have since labored to discover—was equipped with personal headphones for private listening. I sat back and began to muse on this state of affairs. Perhaps, I reasoned, I have been looking for the source of our moral corruption in the wrong places all along. It might not find root in sundry cultural phenomena—the music, the television, the drugs, and so forth—but in those devices which carry us to and from our separate homes, the concerts, the drug deals, in luxury, in seclusion, and which in some sense noumenally make possible those very phenomena. (Oh very good, but I must be discriminating in my analysis, I cautioned myself. One step at a time.) And if it is our carriers which are ultimately entwined with our moral condition, then it necessarily follows that there be a summum bonum and a summum malum of the auto industry. Reflecting, I looked out the window as we passed under a highway placard for our exit, marked “Suburbs.” Three other Saabs were in sight, all taking our exit, and the nearest occupied by four youths passing around what to Joyce’s heavy-souled eyes would only be “an ashplant” (if he only knew!) and bobbing back and forth to some Pandemian beat. At that moment I knew. Yes, I concluded, it must be so.

Here, then, is the nature of the beast. Our cities, our would-be polises (and therefore derivatively our very hearts), lie striated, beltway arroyos separating the vital city center, the informing pulse of social life, from what we—in our modern and veiled sensibilities—consider “the promised land”: those municipally (and severally) peripheral regions where we make our homes, school our children, and take our leisure. If we are “lucky,” we find employment there and never have to leave these suburbs; otherwise, and usually, we rise in the morning to arm ourselves in chrome, fiberglass, and luxury for the long drive in to the city and our places of work. We work our days in our separate offices, caring only about Efficiency and Productivity and Profit, never pausing to reflect that our lives may be fundamentally empty, thinking only of the moment when we can return to our Saabs and Benzes and our wives’ silent Wedgewood and then the equally quiescent metronomic VCRs. (My spite fairly drips onto the page.) We return to the suburbs and our discrete lives, never musing on nor discussing with our children the public life, the good life, and in so doing march in time to the obliteration of our already fragmented and sedentary moral sense.

And the suburban auto dealership, that scourge of the soul, is uniquely responsible for our spiritually dilapidated condition. The chain of reasoning, I now know, is as obvious as it is powerful. America is, fundamentally, a mobile culture. We need automobiles as we need shelter and clothing. And just as where we live and what we wear are symbols of social distinction, what we drive is vitally important to us as well. We therefore respond as calves to the teat to the most alluring auto advertising campaigns, and those successful Kaisers soon construct their apparat-dealerships in those areas in which we have (alas! inexplicably) decided to live: the suburbs. (They know very well American society is one constructed around convenience.) They peddle their wares on our souls, and we respond willingly—we buy their Jettas, their GTI’s, their BMW’s, their Benzes, and their Saabs. And each car a veritable microcosm of the Teutonic disease which plagues the American spirit: steeped in luxury and amenity, with power windows and individual headphones facilitating retreat into the self, and tinted glass which monochromizes the outside world and draws us away from the bright light of the sun and the Real, these German machines simultaneously establish in our national psyche that it is only in comparison with others that we are worth anything at all, that it is only relative to others and their possessions that we have any sense of ourselves. And there it is again, the term which recurs over and over in our stilted moral conversations and has, even only through a linguistic turn, become the (oh, how cruelly ironic!) leitmotif of American culture: “relative”.

Ahh, but more than merely microcosms, these German automobiles actually, phenomenally, noumenally, and (notably) essentially catalyze our moral dissolution. Here is how it happens: though our soul detumesces with each day we embrace the separateness and relativism of suburban life, each day also offers (but only for most of us) an opportunity for convalescence and redemption. Every day many of us commute to work in the city center—the potential polis from which, were we its citizens, we could derive a sense of community and spiritual and physical athleticism and therefore meaning in life—completely oblivious to the moral and aesthetic majesty which informs its rectangular buildings . . . its compressed humanity . . . its Pythagorean shadows . . . its open public places. Great souls of politicians and poets and philosophers could blossom there, if only we would reconsider the demographic dispositions we have indulged. And wherefore that obliviousness, and consequently our oblivion? Quite simply: those German displacers in which we commute to (or, as they would have it, through) the heart of the polis, never wondering about the good life—I mean of course a life of sustained inquiry with other citizens into the Great Questions—because we do not hear the pulse of the city through our personalized headphones nor recognize the buildings’ geometrical truths mediated as they are by tinted windshields. Comfortable in our luxurious Saabs and BMW’s, we never feel the heat of the sun on our faces, never talk to anyone directly, never comprehend the sublimity of (even private) physical exertion because we only push buttons and flip switches, and soon we are on our ways home, back to the suburban Cave and more privacy, more buttons and switches, and no meaningful social contact at all. During the few moments in which we might find cultural fragments of Athens in modern day America, our sensibilities are cauterized, deadened by the suburban, and necessarily German, automobile. I need only refer to my cab driver for the assurance that I am right in my conviction: indeed, this is the capstone of Nietzsche’s colonization of America.

peoplecarsBut space grows short, and I must refer you to my fuller exposition of these views, hopefully forthcoming.[*] Let me say in conclusion only this: we find ourselves at the historical moment for which we will always be held accountable, and it is very much in doubt how our progeny will judge our roadsmanship. Buy Chevrolet. Today.But I do not mean to leave you, oh chosen reader, oh discriminating mind, without recourse in this suburban viscera. There is a way out, and it lies, you might have guessed, much nearer the heart of the polis. It is the Chevrolet dealership. That uniformly buying Chevrolet automobiles will trigger a spiritual rebirth in and radical reorganization of American society becomes transparent after the appreciation of only a few considerations. First of all, my meticulous research and meditation have revealed that all but one of the Chevrolet dealerships in my city are found in urban areas, much closer to the city center and therefore the good life. (To understand the significance of this, let us call this discovery X, and proceed with me as follows: X is true of one city; one city is necessarily in the subset of all cities; therefore, being in that subset, X is true of all cities.) Consider secondly, the name of a popular Chevrolet make: the Nova. The very name connotes starbursts, calling our minds upward to the sky and the constellations, and all the Greek gods, and . . . but I am overcome. You of course see the magnitude of this observation. Moreover, manufacturers of such makes as the Nova must have subtly intended that society be reorganized around Athenian principles, for they precisely rejected all the individualizing and relativizing features of, for example, the Saab. The Nova is not made in more than three colors (and those, wonderfully, only the primary colors), it does not come with power windows or with tinted glass, nor individual bucket seats, the singular stereos soon break down, as do the manual window rollers—all of which force drivers and passengers to talk, to be close, to exert themselves, to notice the outside world, and especially during commutes to notice the polis and the potential and sole realm in which we can realize the good. Further proof of this hidden intention is to be found in Chevrolet’s European advertising brochure, which entices consumers with the vision of driving Chevrolet models “across the United Kingdom, France, [ . . . ], Spain, Holland, Scandinavia, and Italy.” The text makes no mention of Germany; by this important silence, the writer—what a discerning soul!—suggests that no one should visit Germany, that bastion of moral relativism.


[*] Another morally compelling reason to buy Chevrolet is that for a limited time each sale will be rewarded with an unbound (and soon to be published) copy of my more developed thoughts on these matters. Supplies are limited, so don’t delay.